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Pick the Winner: 32 Endangered Animals Face Off in March Sadness Bracket

Climate
Pick the Winner: 32 Endangered Animals Face Off in March Sadness Bracket

Are you worried about what climate change is doing to the Earth's innocent animals?

Elephants face off against mountain goats in the second round of the "Horns & Hooves" category. Photo credit: Brandon Daniel/Creative Commons

Then you'll want to participate in ClimateProgress' March Sadness: A Bracket Battle of Cute Animals, now underway. Thirty-two animals threatened by climate change and environmental degradation were selected to compete. The bracket divided the animals into four categories: Paws and Claws, Fins and Flippers, Horns and Hooves, and Shells and Wings. One animal out of the 32 that began round one almost two weeks ago will emerge as champion after the final round of voting April 6. Voting takes place via Twitter using the hashtag #CPMarchSadness and via comments on the ClimateProgress Facebook page.

"The creatures within this bracket were lovingly chosen by ClimateProgress’ staff, based both on their cuteness and the severity of the environmental threat they face," says ClimateProgress. "They were ranked semi-arbitrarily, but with our perceived likelihood of how popular each animal would be in mind."

One of the primary goals of March Sadness is education. As part of each round, readers learn more about each animal and how it's being endangered by climate change impacts such as drought, sea level rise and rising temperatures. The "winner" will get a deep-dive story put together by a ClimateProgress research team, detailing the extent of the climate threats to that particular animal.

"The basis for how you vote is up to you—you can choose the animal you like the most, the one you think is the cutest, or if you’re really into the end-game of the competition, the one you’d most like to read a deep-dive feature story about," says Climate Progress.

There's still plenty of time to vote; the final round takes place April 6. Image credit: ClimateProgress

Some of the voting has been predictable, but not all of it. Among the animals who started off the round of 32 were favorites like the polar bear, which has already advanced to the round of eight, and sea otter, which beat out the less adorable walrus despite the walrus pileup last fall on Alaska beaches due to melting sea ice. And the beautiful butterfly trounced the gooey gray oyster. But panda and koala are already out of the running. Instead, the wolverine has advanced to the round of eight in the Paws and Claws category. Last summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to protect wolverines as an official threatened species although fewer than 300 exist in the contiguous 48 states.

Currently, the round of 16 is wrapping up, with voting going in the Horns and Hooves and Shells and Wings category. Elephant is facing mountain goat, and narwhal is taking on moose in the former category, while the latter features the contests of sea turtle vs red knot and butterfly vs peregrine falcon.

"ClimateProgress recognizes that there are many, many more than 32 types of animals facing real and terrible threats from climate change and other environmental problems—not to mention the billions of people who will be affected," say the contest organizers. "Due to human activity, the Earth has lost half its vertebrate species since 1970. Believe us, if we had unlimited time and resources, we’d do them all!"

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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